NASA’s Next Test Flight will Honor the Longhorn who Helped Save the Apollo 13 Astronauts

Arturo Campos, BS ’56, was fast asleep at his Houston home when he got a call from NASA that would thrust him into the history books. It was just before midnight on April 13, 1970, and two days earlier the crew of Apollo 13 launched a mission to the moon from Cape Canaveral, Florida. He had worked on the electrical systems for the spacecraft that was now home to a three-person crew traveling 200,000 miles from Earth. Earlier that evening, an oxygen tank on the spacecraft had ruptured and the pilot, Jack Swigert, radioed back those immortal words to NASA’s Mission Control: “Houston, we have a problem.”

“My sister and I came downstairs after the phone woke us up and saw my dad was getting dressed and fixing to go out the door,” recalls Yvette Brewer, the youngest of Campos’ three daughters, who was 7 years old at the time. “We asked our mom what was going on. She said NASA called and they needed dad’s help getting the astronauts back.”

When the tank ruptured, the moon mission was aborted and everyone at Mission Control turned their focus to getting the crew home safely. The problem was that the accident had severely damaged the spacecraft’s power system and the crew would run out of electricity 36 hours before they could make it back to Earth. More than a year before the Apollo 13 mission, Campos had drafted plans for what to do in an electrical emergency. But the unique situation required him to develop a new solution on the fly.

“When they called me up, I rewrote the plan on the spot,” Campos later told reporters.

After a grueling 15 hours of working with the astronauts to restore power by diverting it from the lunar module to their capsule, Campos and the team at Mission Control managed to restore a safe supply of electricity to the astronauts, who splashed down in the Pacific Ocean three days later. If it weren’t for Campos’ efforts, the men of Apollo 13 may have died in deep space and America’s crewed space program would have likely come to an end. Later that year, President Nixon awarded Campos and other members of Mission Control the Presidential Medal of Freedom for their heroic actions under pressure.

“He didn’t talk about it a lot; he was pretty humble,” Brewer says. “We didn’t realize how big of a deal it was until he passed away.” She remembers Apollo 13 lunar module pilot Fred Haise attending her father’s funeral and saying if it weren’t for Campos, he wouldn’t have made it home alive.

Campos retired from NASA in 1980 and died in 2001. He didn’t live to see NASA’s next moon mission, known as Artemis, which aims to send astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024. But true to form, Campos will still have a role to play to ensure these astronauts get home safe.

Earlier this year, he was selected in a NASA contest as the name for the agency’s “moonikin,” a mannequin that will fly on the first un-crewed Artemis test mission around the moon in 2023. Commander Moonikin Campos will wear the same crew survival system space suit that the first Artemis astronauts will wear when they circle the moon the following year. The suit and mannequin will be outfitted with sensors to measure radiation, vibration, and acceleration forces that will help protect the crew.

Officials at NASA nominated Campos and he was chosen during a bracketed public contest that fielded more than 300,000 votes. He was announced as the winner on June 24, his late wife’s birthday. When NASA notified his three daughters, they were “tickled pink,” Brewer says. “I know he’d be so honored.”

Born to a Mexican-American family in Laredo, Texas, as a teenager, Campos planned to work as a car mechanic like his father. But after high school, a teacher who noticed his remarkable talent for science persuaded him to go to college for engineering. After a stint at Laredo Junior College, Campos transferred to The University of Texas and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering.

After Campos graduated from UT Austin, he worked as a civilian at Kelly Air Force Base supervising aircraft maintenance. But when he heard about NASA’s fledgling space program, he knew that’s where he had to be. Campos joined NASA as an electrical engineer in the early ’60s and spent his career developing electrical systems for spacecraft, including the system used on the Apollo 11 lunar lander. Deeply proud of his heritage, he founded and served as the first president of the League of United Latin American Citizens Council 660, a group of Mexican-American engineers at NASA that was dedicated to awarding scholarships to Latino students.

“He was the first in the family to go to college and broke that barrier that showed the rest of us that we could go to college,” Campos’ cousin Bertha Estela Puig says. “There are now generations of children in our family who followed his direction and prospered because of that step he took.”

As the U.S. prepares for its first return to the moon in more than 50 years, it seems fitting Commander Moonikin Campos should be leading the way.

Credit: Courtesy of the Campos daughters, Courtesy of NASA (3)

 
 
 

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